IBADAN, Nigeria – Nigeria postponed its National Assembly elections Saturday as ballots and tally sheets remained missing from polling places throughout the country, a worrying sign as the oil-rich nation faces a month of crucial polls.
Many hoped the first of three April elections in Africa's most populous nation would help it atone for years of marred elections since it became a democracy in 1999. Instead, bewildered voters crowded polling stations and demanded to know what went wrong to push the election back to Monday.
Attahiru Jega, a respected academic in charge of Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission, said only a few of the nation's 36 states had both ballots and tally sheets. He blamed the problem on an unnamed supplier, which said that the airplanes it planned to use to carry the election materials instead were responding to the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Jega said all of the materials were now in the country and promised the election would be held on Monday.
"There was nothing we could do to prevent this from happening," Jega said in a news conference aired live on state-run television and radio.
Authorities say an estimated 73.5 million voters registered to vote in the country's April polls, which include a presidential election. Saturday's election was to decide who should occupy seats in the country's National Assembly, positions worth more than $1 million in salaries and perks — not counting the power to subvert the billions of dollars in oil revenues the country earns each year.
Elections in the past brought out violence and thuggery across Nigeria, home to 150 million and a crucial supplier of crude oil to the United States. Security remains a concern, as more than 50 people already have died in election-related violence this year. Nigeria shut its land borders Friday, while police and soldiers stopped all vehicles moving around in cities. However, Nigeria's sprawling countryside likely remains lightly guarded.
In the northern state of Gombe, rioting started after local officials announced that Senate elections would be postponed. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested one person.
In Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, one young man started yelling at election officials after they announced the cancellation.
"It's not OK, not OK at all. I came from far to get accredited," said Yusuf Akinyera, a 34-year-old computer engineer. "Now that I've come back to vote, they say it's canceled. Who is going to come back on Monday?"
A crowd of youths marched early Saturday morning through one poor neighborhood in Ibadan early Saturday, a city about 90 miles (150 kilometers) inland from Lagos. One youth shouted in the local Yoruba language: "If anyone plays around, I will kill them." Further up the road, a group of soldiers had gathered around a mounted machine gun set up in a traffic roundabout.
Local politicians hungry for power have encouraged running street battles over recent weeks in Ibadan, once one of Africa's most populous cities. On Saturday, young poll workers staffers woke up after sleeping overnight on dirty green foam and wooden signboards outside of one local distribution center. As they prepared to leave for polling places, some found that the serial numbers of their ballots didn't match up, said election worker Tani Ayodele, 26. Many sat down to thumb through and count the ballots by hand.
Still, she and others remained upbeat.
"It's my country," Ayodele said. "I believe we're doing the right thing for the first time."
At another Ibadan distribution center, poll workers from the country's National Youth Service Corps shouted and scuffled with organizers as ballots never arrived. A team of stern-looking security officers in bulletproof vests, likely from Nigeria's secret police, later arrived to see what was happening. No one offered a clear explanation on the delay as the hours passed.
Yet even after news of the delay trickled through polling stations, another worrying sign arose in Ibadan as people holding registration cards said their names weren't on local voter registries. Nigeria just spent more than $230 million on an effort to remake a registry that saw voters named Mike Tyson, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali supposedly cast ballots in a flawed 2007 election.
If a voter isn't on the registry, they cannot cast ballots, raising the possibility of many being disenfranchised.
"If it's not there, it's not there," said Arinola Ladipo, a 53-year-old trader. "There's nothing you can do. Nobody's going to listen to you."
Jega himself offered a similar philosophical take after announcing the postponement: "Man proposes; God disposes."
Associated Press writers Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; Saadatu Muhammad Awak in Gombe, Nigeria and Lekan Oyekanmi and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.